Trump’s Pile of Rubble

WASHINGTON — One of the most totemic pictures of the Obama era was a White House photo showing the president bowing to let a 5-year-old black boy touch his hair.

As Jackie Calmes reported in The Times, the boy, the son of a departing National Security Council staffer, had shyly told Barack Obama, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.”

“Touch it, dude!” the president instructed the child.

It was a moment that summed up all the giddy dreams about race and modernity and a gleaming American future that propelled a freshman senator with an exotic name into office.

Now, one of the most totemic pictures of the Trump era has been tweeted by Melania from the El Paso hospital visited by the first couple amid the blood-dimmed tide of back-to-back gun massacres in Texas and Dayton.

The first lady is holding 2-month-old Paul Anchondo, whose parents, Jordan and Andre, died shielding him from a shooter who confessed to the police that he drove from his home in Allen, Tex., to El Paso to kill Mexicans with an AK-47-style rifle. A manifesto he posted on 8chan, an online forum that’s a haven for white nationalists, stated that he wanted to stop the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

President Trump, standing next to Melania and the baby in the picture, is grinning and giving a thumbs-up.

The infant’s uncle, Tito Anchondo, told reporters that he brought Paul to the hospital to meet Trump, while other victims refused to do so, because he wanted to tell the president about the pain of the family. His slain brother, he said, was a Trump supporter. He told The Washington Post that he felt consoled by Trump.

President Barack Obama in 2009 bent over so the son of a departing staff member could feel his hair.
CreditPete Souza/The White House

But still, there is something sickening about the photo. The picture of Obama with a child was luminous with hope and idealism. The one of Trump with a child was dark with pain and shattered ideals.

Devoid of empathy and humanity, Trump is mugging with an infant who will never know his parents. They were shot by a psychopath whose views echoed Trump’s dangerous and vile rants painting people with darker skin — like the baby’s father — as the enemy, an infestation and invasion aiming to take something away from real Americans. It is the same slimy chum thrown out by other Republicans, only more brutally direct and not limited to campaign season.

Even as we absorbed the grotesque image from the hospital, we had to watch the heart-rending footage of Hispanic children sobbing and stranded in Mississippi because their parents, many working at a chicken processing plant, had been rounded up by ICE.

The Post featured a disturbing headline on Monday about a new study: “Risk of Premature Birth Increased for Latinas After Trump’s Election.” The story said, “Researchers have begun to identify correlations between Trump’s election and worsening cardiovascular health, sleep problems, anxiety and stress, especially among Latinos in the United States.”

The shining city on a hill is an ugly pile of rubble.

Even on this most tragic of weeks for so many families, Trump was obsessing on himself, on his crowd size compared with Beto, and on whether he was getting enough obeisance from Ohio pols.

It defies one’s faith in the good sense and decency of America that we cannot stop the deluge of shooting rampages — even at a time of unprecedented weakness for the N.R.A. and the loathsome Wayne LaPierre, with the gun lobby awash in coup attempts and corruption.

Gun control has the aspect of an intractable problem when it is anything but. Inexplicably and abhorrently, we have decided to live with periodic human sacrifices. That became clear in 2012 in Newtown after the slaughter of the “beautiful babies,” as Joe Biden called the dead first graders. If that didn’t shock the soul enough to act, what could?

We’ve heard Trump talk about talking sense into N.R.A. officials three times now, during the 2016 campaign and after the Parkland shooting and again Friday after his sympathy calls in Dayton and El Paso. The first two times, he caved to the N.R.A. quickly.

Yet temperamentally, Nixon-to-China, Trump is suited to that job. Even though he’s a belligerent, he’s not so enamored of war and guns. “My sons love hunting,” he once tweeted. “I don’t.” He’s no gun nut; he’s a former Democrat from New York who likes to golf.

If he wanted to lead a crusade to get real background checks — or even a ban on assault weapons, which he said in a 2000 book that he favored — he would be formidable.

There is some movement now because the Republicans are scared — not of the shooters but of suburban voters.

For the most part, Republicans are gun owners and Democrats aren’t. But Republican voters are more supportive of common-sense gun control than elected members, who are wallowing with the swamp creatures at the N.R.A.

Mitch McConnell, Dr. No, won’t want to do anything; his spokesman was backing away on Friday. That same day, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, John Barrasso, pumped the brakes on possible inroads, background checks and red-flag laws.

If the president and Republicans come up with anything at all, it will be a remedy just marginal enough to give themselves cover, denying Democrats a powerful campaign issue.

Moscow Mitch and Dreadful Donald will keep talking compromise and hope that things settle down by September, when Congress gets back.

But point-blank: Our Republican leaders are cowards.

We shouldn’t let things die down. Because people keep dying.

The Trump Appointee Who’s Putting White Supremacists in Jail

Two years after Charlottesville, this Republican prosecutor is pioneering a new approach to convicting racist rioters

On June 28, in the main courtroom of Charlottesville’s federal courthouse, U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen rose to his feet. It had been nearly two years since white supremacists brawled with counterprotesters at a violence-filled rally nearby; now, standing still and stoic, the tall, lean Cullen addressed the court regarding the sentencing of James Fields Jr. At the rally in August 2017, Fields, 22, had driven his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of peaceful protesters, maiming many and killing one. Having been convicted on federal hate crimes charges, Fields deserved nothing less than life in prison, Cullen argued.

From the courtroom’s wooden benches, Fields’s victims — who had come to testify about their broken bones, broken spirits and broken marriages; their lasting fear of cars, loud noises and even the light of day — listened intently. Never mind the defendant’s age and appeal for mercy, Cullen said. Hadn’t he described those who disagreed with his views as “monkeys,” “subspecies,” “kikes” and more on his social media accounts? Never mind his claim that he’d acted on impulse and without premeditation, that he’d had mental health problems. “We all face mental health issues,” Cullen pointed out, “but troubled people don’t just commit acts of mass murder or domestic terrorism.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski agreed. Fields stared blankly before him as his sentence was handed down: life in prison without parole. At the prosecution table, Cullen, his face set in its resting scowl, nodded briefly but didn’t look up from the notes he was jotting on his legal pad.

It was a win, but only a first step. Cullen, 15 months into his job as the chief federal prosecutor for the Western District of Virginia, is on a mission: to use the federal judiciary to strike a blow against mounting white nationalist violence. And nailing James Fields was arguably the easy part. The bigger challenge was the organized groups of white supremacists who had planned the massive rally with the intent to threaten and physically assault counterprotesters: How could they be held responsible?

Cullen and his prosecutors have set their sights on a white supremacist group called the Rise Above Movement, based in Southern California, charging four of its members with conspiracy to commit violence and crossing state lines to riot in Charlottesville. The prosecutors’ ironic weapon of choice against the extreme-right group: an anti-riot statute passed in the 1960s to rein in leftist Vietnam War protesters.

The case is the first time federal authorities have tried to disrupt a violent white supremacist terrorist organization on charges other than drug- or gun-dealing or murder. And it’s remarkable not just for the legal tactics involved, but because of the person carrying them out: Thomas Cullen, a Trump-appointed conservative prosecutor from a prominent Republican Virginia family. While the president and others in the GOP have mostly averted their gaze and refused to confront the phenomenon of white supremacy, Cullen is choosing to stare it down. “I could care less about politics,” he says. “Hate crimes and violence by white supremacist organizations that qualify as domestic terrorism are way up. Prosecuting them is common sense. It’s the right thing to do.”

A few weeks before the Fields sentencing, I met Cullen in a small, unadorned conference room on the first floor of the federal courthouse in Charlottesville. At 42, Cullen is easygoing and straightforward, with none of the bravado that many federal prosecutors display. He took office as the top federal lawman for the 46 counties and 17 cities of western Virginia on March 30, 2018. Except for a stint in private practice, he had served as an assistant U.S. attorney and deputy criminal chief in the Roanoke-headquartered office for the previous three years. “I felt pretty comfortable coming into this role,” he told me. “I certainly understood how the office worked.”

On his plate when he took over were

  • opioid pill mills along the Interstate 81 corridor;
  • organized gangs of Crips and Bloods in Danville, near the North Carolina line;
  • drug dealers in the Shenandoah Valley; and the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Cullen was away from Virginia on vacation when the rally and subsequent violence took place, but from the moment he was nominated for the top job, he knew that the issue was “one I need to be involved in.”

Within 24 hours, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh, who lives in Charlottesville and works out of the branch office there, briefed Cullen on the evidence and possible charges. Fields had already been indicted on murder charges by the state, but to send a message, the office wanted him to face federal charges as well. Based on video, Fields’s vile social media feeds and witness testimony, prosecutors believed they had a clear shot at building a hate crime case against Fields under federal civil rights laws.

But there had to be more. “It was too big an event, too awful an event, for the federal government to have that one homicide case,” Kavanaugh told me. “We asked ourselves: What other prosecutions could come of this?”

He found an answer in the more than 5,000 hours of rally video turned over to federal law enforcement by bystanders, participants and journalists. Front and center in much of the action, assaulting and beating counterprotesters including women and clergy, were four men. “This one group of guys kept sticking out,” Kavanaugh says. “They acted in lockstep. Their hands were taped. They were more equipped to fight. They were involved when violence first broke out.” He wondered, “Who are these guys?”

A detailed October 2017 article by the nonprofit investigative news service ProPublica provided crucial information. It identified members of the Rise Above Movement, a virulent neo-Nazi white supremacist group. Founded in California in 2017, RAM had grown to about 20 members by the time of the Charlottesville rally, according to court documents. Its promotional videos show members fitness training, kickboxing and occasionally throwing copies of Anne Frank’s diary into bonfires on the beach. They aimed to build up members’ physical strength in order to punish “Jews,” RAM’s catchall word for anyone it considers an enemy. “Their whole mantra is going in the opposite direction of the image of the basement-dwelling chubby guy spewing hate on his laptop,” says Kavanaugh. “They were masculine, fit, sober, respectful. They had a certain look.”

The four men prosecutors zeroed in on included RAM co-founder Benjamin Daley, a wiry 25-year-old tree trimmer from Redondo Beach, Calif., who routinely bashed “Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook Jew police” for taking down his anti-Muslim posts. Daley had hooked up with another ardent RAM member, Michael Miselis, a 30-year-old aerospace engineering doctoral candidate at UCLA who was working as a systems engineer for defense contractor Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach. (Miselis lost his job — and his U.S. government security clearance — after he was named in a July 2018 ProPublica article.)

The problem for the U.S. attorney’s team was finding a federal statute they could charge the men under. According to Cullen and Kavanaugh, there are precious few laws available to federal law enforcement agencies and lawyers for investigating and prosecuting domestic terrorist groups for violent rhetoric — or even outright violence. Local and state police and courts can charge crimes of assault, robbery, threats and all manner of person-to-person violence, but the federal criminal code limits the FBI and all federal agencies to investigating broader conspiracies, fraud, gun and drug trafficking, and civil rights violations — which now includes hate crimes. In many cases, defendants must cross state lines to be found in violation of federal law.

Investigating domestic terrorism can put federal agents in even more disputed terrain. Academics, lawyers and judges contest the line where First Amendment rights of free speech end and conspiring to commit violence begins. Federal law enforcement agencies have long had to navigate that line, even as the demand to rein in domestic terrorist groups grows. “The FBI is under pressure to do something it can’t do something about,” says Adam Lee, former head of the FBI’s Richmond office and now head of security for Dominion Energy. “The FBI cannot target domestic terrorist groups like an international threat. The First Amendment absolutely forbids it.” (Progressive advocates, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, dispute this, arguing that the FBI readily investigates groups on the left that it views as subversive, including environmental groups, Black Lives Matter and others.)

Prosecutors were committed to bringing the RAM four to justice, but they did not believe proving a hate crime under federal statutes was their strongest possible case. Instead, digging into federal criminal laws, they found the 1968 Anti-Riot Act, passed by Congress to punish antiwar protesters who crossed state lines to incite a riot. “If we could prove,” says Kavanaugh, that the RAM members “had intent to commit violence and they traveled across state lines, we could build a case.” Cullen didn’t need a lot of persuading. He told his prosecutors to dust off the little-used law and charge the four RAM members with conspiracy to riot. It was, Cullen told me, “our only viable option.”

In the months after he took office, Cullen gradually came to the conclusion that white supremacists and far-right domestic terrorist groups like RAM are “grave threats” to the country — and are stepping up their violence. He interviewed victims, reviewed hundreds of hours of tape, read about the radical far right, and attended domestic terrorism meetings at the Justice Department. “The cumulative weight of the evidence opened my eyes,” he says. “I felt an obligation to protect the public, to take them off the street.”

That sense of obligation may come from his upbringing. Cullen was the eldest of four children in a conservative Republican family from Richmond. Public service was drilled in by his father, Richard Cullen, a former attorney general of Virginia and former U.S. attorney for Virginia’s Eastern District. “He’s my mentor and role model,” says Cullen. “A benefit and a burden.”

By many accounts, the elder Cullen, 71, is one of the most sought-after defense lawyers in the nation for powerful Republicans in need. (He recently represented Vice President Pence in Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion.) But the self-described “small government, individual liberty-type Republican” also had close ties to former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder; in 1993, he worked with the Democrat to pass a law limiting handgun purchases in Virginia to one a month. “Thomas was always around people in public life,” Richard says. “But I did not try to shape his career.”

Thomas, for his part, had no particular yearning to follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from Furman University in South Carolina, he enrolled in William & Mary Law School. On his second day he phoned his father. “I’ve decided not to continue here,” he said. Cullen had looked around at his fellow students at orientation and was “scared out of my mind. I didn’t feel ready.”

A year of teaching English at a military prep school, however, convinced him that he was ready. He returned to William & Mary, earning a law degree in 2004. After graduating near the top of his class, he clerked for Roger Gregory, the first African American to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

For his first job as federal prosecutor, Cullen headed to North Carolina. Four years later, in 2010, Tim Heaphy, the U.S. attorney for Virginia’s Western District, recruited him to run his criminal division. Heaphy, as it happened, was Richard Cullen’s former law partner. Cullen knew that his colleagues might be suspicious of his hiring. “I felt the pressure,” he says. “I just worked harder to establish myself.”

In July 2017 Cullen was working in private practice in Roanoke when the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, floated his name for the job as top federal prosecutor in the Western District. Trump nominated him in February 2018, and the Senate confirmed him the next month. The president had already declared that “there were fine people on both sides” of the violence in Charlottesville, a statement that seemed to bless violent white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Cullen would look to disprove that contention in court.

Afederal grand jury indicted James Fields on June 27, 2018. Fields was already in custody on state murder charges, but the RAM four were still out there, celebrated on white nationalist websites and gloating about their fighting prowess.We had the[m] completely surrounded,” Daley wrote on his Facebook page of the torch-lit march on the U-Va. campus, according to court documents. “I hit like 5 people.” In the spring of 2018, Daley and Miselis traveled to Germany to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday at the white supremacist Shield and Sword Festival.

On Aug. 27, 2018, Cullen and his team filed arrest warrants for Daley, Miselis, Gillen and White, supporting the complaints with photos and screen shots:

  • White head-butting a clergyman, then
  • cracking heads with a female counterprotester, leaving her with blood streaming down her face; Miselis, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat turned backward,
  • kicking a man as he’s falling;
  • Daley grabbing a woman and body-slamming her to the ground.

Cullen asked the judge to keep the warrants sealed until prosecutors could organize the arrests. Then, in the early morning hours of Oct. 2, 2018, federal agents in Southern California raided the homes of Daley, Miselis and Gillen, and brought the men to federal court in Los Angeles. White was grabbed in San Francisco.

Kavanaugh went to California to help guide the arrests. “It was important to show our presence out there,” Cullen says. “It was our case. They were coming back here.” The four suspects, facing 10 years in prison — five for each of two federal rioting charges — were taken to the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange.

At a news conference in Roanoke, Cullen recognized ProPublica for providing a “starting point” for the federal investigation. But “we’re not finished,” he declared. “I commit as the U.S. attorney that we’re going to follow every lead until we’re satisfied that we’ve done all we can do.” He wanted to “send a message” to white supremacists, he said, putting them on notice that they could face federal criminal charges for violent actions.

Earlier this year, in a New York Times essay, Cullen decried the rise in far right extremism as “among the greatest domestic-security threats facing the United States” and lamented that “law enforcement, at both the federal and state levels, has been slow to respond.” Federal prosecutors, he wrote, needed additional tools, such as “a domestic-terrorism statute that would allow for the terrorism prosecution of people who commit acts of violence, threats and other criminal activities aimed at intimidating or coercing civilians.”

Cullen’s outspokenness risked rebuke from a White House, a president and a political party that have tended to avoid calling out white supremacists. He allows that he put himself “out on a limb,” but he got no negative feedback — and he has no regrets. “Violent domestic terrorism is becoming tragically more frequent,” he says. “We have to respond.”

Federal public defender Lisa Lorish immediately rebutted Cullen’s case against the RAM four. On behalf of Ben Daley, she filed a motion to dismiss. Calling the federal Anti-Riot Act “overbroad” and “unconstitutionally vague,” she argued that “it seeks to punish defendants for engaging in protected First Amendment freedoms of speech and peaceable assembly.”

Cullen fired back on March 8: “The First Amendment does not, and has never, protected incitement to violence or violent actions.” And: “Participation in a political rally does not grant individuals license to engage in mayhem.” On April 19, Cole White was freed after pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate with the prosecution. On May 2, U.S. District Judge Norman Moon denied Lorish’s motion to dismiss. With the case proceeding and video evidence stacked against them, the three remaining RAM defendants pleaded guilty the next day. (Not long after, a California judge threw out a similar case based on the Anti-Riot Act for violating the First Amendment. If appealed, the two cases could wind up before the Supreme Court.)

Three months after pleading guilty, Daley, Miselis and Gillen shuffled into court for their sentencing, dressed in orange prison suits, their hands and feet in shackles. (White would be sentenced separately.) Several days earlier, Cullen had upped the ante, asking Moon to elevate their actions to hate crimes, which would add many months to their time behind bars. “It’s crucial that we send a message of deterrence for other militant white supremacists,” he told the court.

To support the hate crimes charge, Cullen and Kavanaugh introduced fresh evidence that the men had specifically targeted Jews and women. Their signs, speech and social media were replete with anti-Semitic tropes. The prosecutors replayed images of Daley choking a woman and unearthed a text from Miselis to Daley: “lol @ u choking a bitch.” As prosecutors played video of them beating women to the ground, Miselis and Daley smirked and winked.

In the end, Moon ruled that Cullen had failed to prove that the three were motivated by hate. Based on plenty of other evidence, however, he sentenced ringleader Daley to 37 months, Gillen to 33, and Miselis to 27. All three have indicated their intention to appeal on the grounds that the Anti-Riot Act infringes on their right to free speech. But because of the length of the appeals process, they will most likely end up serving their full sentences.

After the hearing, I asked Cullen whether the two years of investigations and prosecutions were worth it. “Very,” he replied, not missing a beat. In his view, the Rise Above Movement, with a co-founder behind bars, is finished. Moreover, the case could set precedent. “My hope is you will see the use of the anti-riot statute to address these increasing problems of violent domestic terrorism,” he said. At the very least, white supremacists will need to think twice before they travel the country spreading violence. One thing’s for sure, adds Chris Kavanaugh: They’re not likely to come back to Charlottesville.

Trump Taunts Christine Blasey Ford at Rally

Playing to the crowd of thousands gathered to cheer him on, the president pretended to be Dr. Blasey testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday. “Thirty-six years ago this happened. I had one beer, right? I had one beer,” said Mr. Trump, channeling his version of Dr. Blasey. His voice dripping with derision, he then imitated her being questioned at the hearing, followed by her responses about what she could not recall about the alleged attack.

“How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? I don’t know,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd applauded. “But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.”

.. Then, continuing in his own voice, he said: “And a man’s life is in tatters. A man’s life is shattered. His wife is shattered.” Referring to those who have championed Dr. Blasey’s case, he added: “They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.”

Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, criticized the president’s mocking of Dr. Blasey.

“To discuss something this sensitive at a political rally is just not right, it’s just not right and I wish he had not have done it,” Mr. Flake said early Wednesday on NBC. “It’s kind of appalling.”

.. Mr. Trump’s taunts could inflame a struggle over power and sex that has consumed the capital in recent weeks and risked alienating two of the undecided moderate Republicans whose votes will decide the fate of his nomination, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

.. Earlier Tuesday, the president’s advisers were privately marveling at how measured — for him — he had been throughout the controversy around Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation process. But his patience appeared to run out on Tuesday night, as Mr. Trump seemed eager to charge up his supporters against Dr. Blasey.
.. Mr. Trump’s portrait of Dr. Blasey was met with cheers and laughter by the crowd of several thousand supporters at the Landers Center in Southaven, Miss. And it mirrored the increasingly sharp attacks against her by conservative news media
.. Mr. Trump has expressed similar sentiments in the past in response to sexual misconduct allegations against Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host who was forced out after multimillion-dollar settlements of sexual harassment claims; Roy S. Moore, the Republican candidate for Senate in Alabama who lost after being accused of child molestation; and Rob Porter, his White House staff secretary who resigned after two former wives accused him of abuse.
.. Asked if he had a message to men, the president said: “Well, I say that it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of. This is a very, very — this is a very difficult time.”

The Force of Decency Awakens

A funny thing is happening on the American scene: a powerful upwelling of decency.

.. You can see the abrupt turn toward decency in the rise of the #MeToo movement; in a matter of months ground that had seemed immovable shifted, and powerful sexual predators started facing career-ending consequences.

.. You can see it in the reactions to the Parkland school massacre.

.. Even the huge anti-Trump demonstrations just after Inauguration Day didn’t seem to move the conventional wisdom. But those pink pussy hats may have represented the beginning of real social and political change.

.. Political scientists have a term and a theory for what we’re seeing on #MeToo, guns and perhaps more: “regime change cascades.”

.. When people see the status quo as immovable, they tend to be passive even if they are themselves dissatisfied. Indeed, they may be unwilling to reveal their discontent, or to fully admit it to themselves. But once they see others visibly taking a stand, they both gain more confidence in their dissent and become more willing to act on it — and by their actions they may induce the same response in others, causing a kind of chain reaction.

.. Examples include

  1. the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848,
  2. the sudden collapse of communism in 1989 and
  3. the Arab Spring of 2011.

.. nothing says that such cascades have to be positive either in their motivations or in their results. The period 2016-17 clearly represented a sort of Alt-Right Spring — springtime for fascists? — in which white supremacists and anti-Semites were emboldened

  1. not just by Donald Trump’s election but by the
  2. evidence that there were more like-minded people than anyone realized, both in the U.S. and Europe.

.. historians have described 1848 as a turning point where history somehow failed to turn: At the end of the day the old, corrupt regimes were still standing.

.. far too much power rests in the hands of men who are simply bad people.

.. his growing backlash is not just its vileness, but its lameness.

.. Trump’s response to Parkland — let’s arm teachers! — wasn’t just stupid, it was cowardly, an attempt to duck the issue

.. Missouri G.O.P. has responded to the indictment of Gov. Eric Greitens, accused of trying to blackmail his lover with nude photos: by blaming … George Soros

.. They’ve pretty much given up on making any substantive case for their ideas in favor of rants about socialists trying to take away your freedom.

.. it’s also kind of whiny; it’s what people sound like when they know they’re losing the argument.

.. the U.S. electoral system is in effect rigged in favor of Republicans

.. Democrats will need to win the popular vote by something like seven percentage points to take the House.

 

God’s Plan for Mike Pence

Will the vice president—and the religious right—be rewarded for their embrace of Donald Trump?

Casting himself as the heir to the popular outgoing governor, Mitch Daniels, he avoided social issues and ran on a pragmatic, business-friendly platform. He used Ronald Reagan as a political style guru and told his ad makers that he wanted his campaign commercials to have “that ‘Morning in America’ feel.” He meticulously fine-tuned early cuts of the ads, asking his consultants to edit this or reframe that or zoom in here instead of there.

.. set about cutting taxes and taking on local unions—burnishing a résumé that would impress Republican donors and Iowa caucus-goers. The governor’s stock began to rise in Washington

..  In recent years, the religious right had been abruptly forced to pivot from offense to defense in the culture wars—abandoning the “family values” crusades and talk of “remoralizing America,” and focusing its energies on self-preservation.

..“Many evangelicals were experiencing the sense of an almost existential threat,” Russell Moore, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me.

It was only a matter of time, he said, before cultural elites’ scornful attitudes would help drive Christians into the arms of a strongman like Trump. “I think there needs to be a deep reflection on the left about how they helped make this happen.”

.. Coming into the game, Trump had formed an opinion of the Indiana governor as prudish, stiff, and embarrassingly poor, according to one longtime associate.

.. Pence asked what his job description would be if they wound up in the White House together. Trump gave him the same answer he’d been dangling in front of other prospective running mates for weeks: He wanted “the most consequential vice president ever.” Pence was sold.

.. “I knew they would enjoy each other’s company,” Conway told me, adding, “Mike Pence is someone whose faith allows him to subvert his ego to the greater good.”

.. Pence spent much of their time on the course kissing Trump’s ring. You’re going to be the next president of the United States, he said. It would be the honor of a lifetime to serve you.

Afterward, he made a point of gushing to the press about Trump’s golf game. “He beat me like a drum,” Pence confessed, to Trump’s delight.

.. Trump released a list of potential Supreme Court nominees with unimpeachably pro-life records and assembled an evangelical advisory board composed of high-profile faith leaders.

.. One of the men asked to join the board was Richard Land, of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. When the campaign approached him with the offer, Land says, he was perplexed. “You do know that Trump was my last choice, right?” he said. But he ultimately accepted, and when a campaign aide asked what his first piece of advice was, he didn’t hesitate: “Pick Mike Pence.”

.. Then, on July 12, a miracle: During a short campaign swing through Indiana, Trump got word that his plane had broken down on the runway, and that he would need to spend the night in Indianapolis. With nowhere else to go, Trump accepted an invitation to dine with the Pences.

.. In fact, according to two former Trump aides, there was no problem with the plane. Paul Manafort, who was then serving as the campaign’s chairman, had made up the story to keep the candidate in town an extra day and allow him to be wooed by Pence.

.. Pence spoke of Trump in a tone that bordered on worshipful. One of his rhetorical tics was to praise the breadth of his running mate’s shoulders. Trump was, Pence proclaimed, a “broad-shouldered leader,” in possession of “broad shoulders and a big heart,” who had “the kind of broad shoulders” that enabled him to endure criticism while he worked to return “broad-shouldered American strength to the world stage.”

.. Campaign operatives discovered that anytime Trump did something outrageous or embarrassing, they could count on Pence to clean it up. “He was our top surrogate by far,”

.. “He was this mild-mannered, uber-Christian guy with a Midwestern accent telling voters, ‘Trump is a good man; I know what’s in his heart.’ It was very convincing—you wanted to trust him.

.. Even some of Trump’s most devoted loyalists marveled at what Pence was willing to say. There was no talking point too preposterous, no fixed reality too plain to deny

.. When, during the vice-presidential debate, in early October, he was confronted with a barrage of damning quotes and questionable positions held by his running mate, Pence responded with unnerving message discipline, dismissing documented facts as “nonsense” and smears.

.. It was the kind of performance—a blur of half-truths and “whatabout”s and lies—that could make a good Christian queasy.

.. Marc Short, a longtime adviser to Pence and a fellow Christian, told me that the vice president believes strongly in a scriptural concept evangelicals call “servant leadership.” The idea is rooted in the Gospels, where Jesus models humility by washing his disciples’ feet and teaches, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”

..  when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination, he believed he was committing to humbly submit to the will of Donald Trump. “Servant leadership is biblical,” Short told me. “That’s at the heart of it for Mike, and it comes across in his relationship with the president.”

.. “His faith teaches that you’re under authority at all times.

  • Christ is under God’s authority,
  • man is under Christ’s authority,
  • children are under the parents’ authority,
  • employees are under the employer’s authority.”

.. “Mike,” he added, “always knows who’s in charge.”

.. On friday, october 7, 2016, The Washington Post published the Access Hollywood tape

.. Most alarming to the aides and operatives inside Trump Tower, Mike Pence suddenly seemed at risk of going rogue.

.. Republican donors and party leaders began buzzing about making Pence the nominee and drafting Condoleezza Rice as his running mate.

.. The furtive plotting, several sources told me, was not just an act of political opportunism for Pence. He was genuinely shocked by the Access Hollywood tape. In the short time they’d known each other, Trump had made an effort to convince Pence that—beneath all the made-for-TV bluster and bravado—he was a good-hearted man with faith in God. On the night of the vice-presidential debate, for example, Trump had left a voicemail letting Pence know that he’d just said a prayer for him. The couple was appalled by the video, however. Karen in particular was “disgusted,” says a former campaign aide. “She finds him reprehensible—just totally vile.

.. Pence turns to a favorite passage in Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

.. “They thought they were going to be able to get him to drop out before the second debate,” said a former campaign aide. “Little did they know, he has no shame.”

.. Trump showed up in St. Louis for the debate with a group of Bill Clinton accusers in tow, ranting about how Hillary’s husband had done things to women that were far worse than his own “locker-room talk.”

.. In political circles, there had been a widespread, bipartisan recognition that Pence was a decent man with a genuine devotion to his faith. But after watching him in 2016, many told me, they believed Pence had sold out.

.. watching Pence vouch for Trump made him sad. “Ah, Mike,” he sighed. “Ambition got the best of him.” It’s an impression that even some of Pence’s oldest friends and allies privately share.

.. “The number of compromises he made to get this job, when you think about it, is pretty staggering.”

.. Pastor Ralph Drollinger, for example, caught Trump’s attention in December 2015, when he said in a radio interview, “America’s in such desperate straits—especially economically—that if we don’t have almost a benevolent dictator to turn things around, I just don’t think it’s gonna happen through our governance system.” Now Drollinger runs a weekly Bible study in the West Wing.

.. On one side, there are those who argue that good Christians are obligated to support any leader, no matter how personally wicked he may be, who stands up for religious freedom and fights sinful practices such as abortion. Richard Land told me that those who withhold their support from Trump because they’re uncomfortable with his moral failings will “become morally accountable for letting the greater evil prevail.”

.. On the other side of the debate is a smaller group that believes the Christians allying themselves with Trump are putting the entire evangelical movement at risk. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, has made this case forcefully.

.. only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.”

.. One pastor compared Pence to Mordechai, who ascended to the right hand of a Persian king known for throwing lavish parties and discarding his wife after she refused to appear naked in front of his friends.

.. Pastor Mark Burns—a South Carolina televangelist who was among the first to sign on as a faith adviser to Trump—told me Pence’s role in the administration is like that of Jesus, who once miraculously calmed a storm that was threatening to sink the boat

.. Of the 15 Cabinet secretaries Trump picked at the start of his presidency, eight were evangelicals. It was, gushed Ted Cruz, “the most conservative Cabinet in decades.”

.. Pence understood the price of his influence. To keep Trump’s ear required frequent public performances of loyalty and submission—and Pence made certain his inner circle knew that enduring such indignities was part of the job.

.. “Look, I’m in a difficult position here,” Pence said, according to someone familiar with the meeting. “I’m going to have to 100 percent defend everything the president says. Is that something you’re going to be able to do if you’re on my staff?”

.. Trump does not always reciprocate this respect. Around the White House, he has been known to make fun of Pence for his religiosity.

.. During a conversation with a legal scholar about gay rights, Trump gestured toward his vice president and joked, “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!”

..  “They have moved to an ends-justifies-the means style of politics that would have been unimaginable before this last campaign.”

.. he thought it was so low class,” says the adviser. “He thinks the Pences are yokels.”

.. Social conservatives had been lobbying the president to issue a sweeping executive order aimed at carving out protections for religious organizations and individuals opposed to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and transgender rights. The proposed order was fairly radical, but proponents argued that it would strike a crucial blow against the militant secularists trying to drive the faithful out of the public square.

.. “Bannon wanted to fight for it,” says the Trump associate, “and he was really unimpressed that Pence wouldn’t do anything.”

.. But perhaps Pence was playing the long game—weighing the risks of taking on Trump’s kids, and deciding to stand down in the interest of preserving his relationship with the president.

.. What would a Pence presidency look like? To a conservative evangelical, it could mean a glorious return to the Christian values upon which America was founded. To a secular liberal, it might look more like a descent into the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale.

.. What critics should worry about is not that Pence believes in God, but that he seems so certain God believes in him. What happens when manifest destiny replaces humility, and the line between faith and hubris blurs? What unseemly compromises get made? What means become tolerable in pursuit of an end?

.. Trump’s order merely made it easier for pastors to voice political opinions from the pulpit—a conspicuously self-serving take on religious freedom.

.. The faith leaders pulled out their smartphones and snapped selfies, intoxicated by the VIP treatment. “Mr. President,” Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, said at one point, “we’re going to be your most loyal friends. We’re going to be your enthusiastic supporters. And we thank God every day that you’re the president of the United States.”

.. “I’ve been with [Trump] alone in the room when the decisions are made. He and I have prayed together,” Pence said. “This is somebody who shares our views, shares our values, shares our beliefs.” Pence didn’t waste time touting his own credentials. With this crowd, he didn’t need to. Instead, as always, he lavished praise on the president.